Dominic Cummings was convinced last year that the phrase that would bring down the Prime Minister was “let the bodies pile high”.
Instead, at the end of a week that could decide Boris Johnson’s future, the words that could prove to be his political epitaph were not even said by him: “Bring your own booze.”
As he stands accused of breaking Covid rules at the height of the pandemic, there is a supreme irony in Mr Johnson deciding to spend this weekend adhering to a rule that no longer exists.
Bunkered in his Downing Street flat after a member of his family tested positive for Covid, his spokesman has said he was unlikely to be seen in public for the next week, even though he abolished self-isolation for close contacts last year.
Mr Johnson will be hoping that by the time he emerges from his needless period of quarantine, a report into Downing Street parties will have cleared him of wrongdoing.
The truth is, however, that whether or not he is found to have technically broken any rules, or lied to Parliament, his fate may already be sealed. MPs returning to their constituencies this weekend have reported a savage response from their constituents and from councillors fearing a bloodbath at the local elections in May. Conservatives on perpetually Tory Sutton Coldfield council issued a unanimous call for Mr Johnson to resign.
A new low was reached on Friday when Downing Street, following the Telegraph’s disclosure of boozy leaving parties on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, had to issue a formal apology to the Queen. Boris Johnson’s voluntary confinement will enable him to postpone, for a few days at least, the moment when he has to look Her Majesty in the eye during his weekly audience.
“It’s the drip feed of revelations that is killing him,” said one Tory MP. “A lot of colleagues who were still supporting him at the start of the week have now changed their minds and think he should go. They think there is more to come and this will just go on and on. It has to end.”
One veteran Tory backbencher said: “On balance I think he is probably finished. The response from constituents is terrible.”
Should Mr Johnson be forced out in the coming weeks or months, the turning point in his fortunes will be traced back to 3.36pm on Friday, January 7.
It was at that moment that Mr Cummings tweeted out the fact that there had been a “rule-breaking drinks” party in Downing Street on May 20 2020.
Almost from the moment he left Downing Street in November 2020, Mr Cummings had made it his mission to bring down the Prime Minister, yet 14 months’ worth of tweets and blogs and a seven-hour appearance before a select committee last May had failed to produce a killer fact.
But where his leak of the “bodies pile high” comment by Johnson was forgiven by a significant section of the public because it related to his loathing of lockdowns (which they shared), the idea of parties going on in No10 during lockdown was a different matter.
By Sunday there were claims that Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie had attended the party, and then on Monday night came the smoking gun: an email, leaked to ITV News, in which Martin Reynolds, Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, invited around 100 staff to “make the most of the lovely weather” and have “socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden this evening”. It ended: “Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!”
For many Tory backbenchers, enough was enough. “Never mind all the people who couldn’t see dying loved ones during lockdown,” one said, “people didn’t even feel they could go indoors for a cup of tea with someone if it started raining. The culture of impunity in No10 is literally beyond belief.”
The story dominated the next day’s headlines and Labour tabled an urgent question in Parliament which, rather than being answered by Mr Johnson, was fended off by Michael Ellis, the Paymaster General and one of the most junior ministers in Government.
As he told baying Opposition MPs that he was sorry “allegations have arisen”, only a handful of Tory MPs turned up in the Commons chamber to offer moral support. “There were more Tories at the Number 10 party than on the backbenches,” observed one drily.
The vacant green benches behind Mr Ellis were not only a bad look, they signalled much deeper trouble for Mr Johnson.
One long-standing Tory MP said: “Poor Michael Ellis was sent out like a sacrificial lamb to answer that urgent question, which went down really badly, and no one went out to support him because that would have meant showing support for the PM. It was a boycott of that statement.
“Normally you get a circular from the whips’ office asking you to attend the chamber and show support, but there was nothing. And if a PM loses the whip’s office, that’s when you know the game’s up. We are not there yet but we’re not far off.”
Mr Johnson could not, however, dodge Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, and chose the only option left open to him: a grovelling apology. Having confirmed that he did attend the May 20 event “for 25 minutes”, he told Parliament that he understood the “rage” felt by people across the country “with me and with the Government I lead” when they thought rules were being broken by the people who made them.
“It was embarrassing,” said one Tory MP who was sitting behind the Prime Minister. “The fact that he had put himself in the position where he had to make that apology is just humiliating for the entire party.”
Mr Johnson urged MPs of every party to wait until the official investigation into Downing Street parties, led by senior civil servant Sue Gray, reported its findings, then tried to shore up support by heading for the Commons tea room and speaking to his MPs individually.
Scramble to regain support for PM
Loyal supporters also did their best to pull colleagues back from the brink. Michael Gove, in an uncharacteristic act of self-sacrifice, addressed the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs that evening, telling him that he had been a “bedwetter” when it came to Covid and that it was Mr Johnson who had “got the big calls right” on coronavirus and Brexit. He added: “Now is not the time to go wobbly.”
Meanwhile, Gavin Williamson, the former education secretary, was doing his best with the “red wall” Tory MPs who fear they will be one-term politicians if voters in the north turn their backs on Mr Johnson.
“Gavin has got himself a big office in Richmond House where most of the 2019 intake MPs are, and he has spent the week telling them to calm down, to wait for the outcome of the Sue Gray investigation,” said one insider.
Other Tory big hitters, however, were not so supportive, most notably those with one eye on succeeding Mr Johnson.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, took eight hours to make a public statement of support for the Prime Minister, and even then it was distinctly lukewarm, saying only that he was “right to apologise” and that he supported Mr Johnson’s request for patience while the Gray inquiry continued. Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, took even longer, waiting until 9.14pm that night to tweet that she stood behind the PM “100 per cent”.
Mr Sunak had absented himself to Ilfracombe in Devon on the day Mr Johnson was making his apology, but managed to get back to Committee Room 6 of the Commons in time for his third meeting with Tory MPs in the space of three nights.
One attendee said: “They were billed as a chance to discuss policy with Rishi but he obviously sensed which way the wind was blowing. Ministers do these things from time to time but they don’t do three on successive nights.
“The one I went to had maybe 30 or 40 people in the room and it lasted for 90 minutes. It was a subtle leadership pitch, talking about getting the benefits of Brexit and being the party of strivers.”
There was little time for Mr Johnson to worry about what his rivals were up to though. After a 15-minute phone call with Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Mr Johnson was dismayed when Mr Ross publicly called on him to quit, saying: “I don’t think he can continue as leader.” His predecessor Baroness Davidson soon said the same, along with two thirds of Conservative members of the Scottish Parliament, former minister Caroline Nokes, and Sir Roger Gale, who said Mr Johnson was “a dead man walking”.
Senior Conservative sources have told the Telegraph that the executive of the 1922 Committee had discussed sending a delegation to ram home the strength of feeling to the Prime Minister, before deciding that “colleagues weren’t quite there yet”.
Instead William Wragg, the vice-chairman of the 1922 committee, took matters into his own hands by saying Mr Johnson should go because his MPs were “worn out defending the indefensible”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, retorted that Mr Ross was a “lightweight”.
Still the bad news kept coming. Friday’s Telegraph broke the news that two separate leaving parties had taken place into the early hours at Downing St on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, when the Queen was so memorably forced to sit in isolation because of harsh Covid rules. One of them was for James Slack, the Prime Minister’s outgoing director of communications. Hours later No 10 had sent an official apology to the Queen and said it was “deeply regrettable” the parties had happened at a time of national mourning.
In the same newspaper Andrew Bridgen, the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, revealed that he had submitted a letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, saying Mr Johnson should “go now with some semblance of grace”.
As the parliamentary week came to an end, Peter Bone, the Tory MP for Wellingborough, returned to his constituency to find the word LIAR spray-painted on his office window. Other MPs were bombarded with emails.
“I had about 250 emails and 95 per cent of them were negative,” said one. Another said: “My local Conservative council is planning for the May elections, and they have said they don’t want Boris Johnson anywhere near the campaign material. He has gone from our biggest electoral asset to our biggest liability.
“There are still some Tory MPs who believe Boris can turn it round, but if we get hammered in the local elections that’s when it will become impossible for him to stay.”
A YouGov poll on Friday put the Tories 11 points behind Labour, the biggest gap of Mr Johnson’s premiership.
Mr Johnson, who had told friends he wants to stay in the newly-wallpapered Downing Street for 10 years, is now odds-on with some bookies to last less time than Theresa May, the woman he helped depose. To avoid that fate, he would have to survive until at least August 4, but by next week there might not be many Tory MPs willing to take that bet.